Found near Wedderburn in 1981, the ‘Pride of Australia‘ was the largest Victorian gold nugget on display in Australia.1 Its name was a tribute to its malformed shape, which was said to resemble the continent of Australia (albeit without Tasmania).

Photo of gold nugget "Pride of Australia" on black background
The ‘Pride of Australia’ gold nugget. Photo by Frank Coffa. Courtesy of Museums Victoria

In 1985, the State Bank Victoria forked out $250,000 to purchase the nugget to stop it falling into the hands of overseas collectors. The nugget was displayed at the bank’s Bourke Street headquarters until it was borrowed by the Museum of Victoria for a bicentennial exhibition. 2

The exhibition, entitled ‘Bonanza’, was a tribute to the role of gold in Victoria. The nugget was displayed in a case close to the Swanston Street entrance, which the museum shared with the State Library of Victoria. 3

Once the exhibition finished, the bank agreed the museum could have the nugget on permanent loan. It was moved to the Stawell Gallery (now the Library’s Cowen Gallery) to form part of an exhibition called ‘The Story of Victoria’.

Black and white photo features an elevated view of McCoy Hall (later known as the Redmond Barry Reading Room, State Library of Victoria) showing stuffed animals and animal skeletons in glass cases. Glass cabinets and other exhibits can be seen on the balcony around the room
Display of animals and fossils in McCoy Hall, National Museum, Melbourne; H12934. For many years, the Library was co-located with Museum Victoria (then known as the National Museum) and the National Gallery of Victoria.

The nugget remained on display in the gallery for several years until one winter’s night in 1991, a daring raid was conducted on the museum.

It was around 9.15pm and a security guard had just finished clearing the Planetarium of visitors. He was walking up Latrobe Street when he noticed a light shining from a doorway. Upon investigation, he discovered a panel of the fire door had been broken. The thieves had reached in through the hole they’d created and turned the door handle to let themselves in.4

A museum van had been parked in the driveway, giving them the perfect cover.5

Colour photo of the State Library Victoria at night. The staue of Redmond Barry is on the steps in the foreground and the library's portico is floodlit against a dark background.
Facade of the State Library of Victoria, 8 January 1987. Photo by Rodney Start. Courtesy of Museums Victoria; H87.47/1. This photo was taken by Rodney Start for the cover of a leaflet promoting the museum’s Planetarium. It is estimated to be taken at around 9 to 9.30 pm at night.

Once inside the building, the thieves made their way through the North Rotunda and into the Stawell Gallery, where the gold nugget was on display in the far corner. Using a sledgehammer, they smashed their way into the display case and made off with the nugget, leaving a one thousand dollar commemorative gold coin – also on display in the case – behind. The sledgehammer was found discarded underneath the museum van the following day.6

Police estimated that the entire operation had lasted just three minutes.7

Security around the gold nugget had been tight. An alarm was attached to the door of the display case, and there was a separate vibration alarm housed inside. Both alarms had failed to go off, even when the case was smashed open by a sledgehammer. When the alarms were checked the next day, both of them were found to be in working order, leading police to suspect it was an inside job.8

A security camera had also been trained on the display case, but when police checked it for evidence, they discovered it had failed to record any footage of the crime.9

Poster features illustrations of some of the gold nuggets found in Victoria prior to 1891.
The Great Nuggets of Victoria, 1891; H2000.180/81. The ‘Pride of Australia’ weighed in at 256 oz (or 7.26 kg) and measured 15.5cm in length, making it larger than many of the nuggets in this poster, but still significantly smaller than some of Victoria’s biggest finds.

The theft had been executed at an auspicious time: a new $470,000 security system was due to be installed in the days following the raid. 10

Furthermore, the Library (which was co-located with the museum at the time) was in the middle of a redevelopment. The media reported that dozens of contractors were roaming the site, making it difficult to keep track of who was accessing the building. 11

Police criminal investigation and major crime squads launched a major investigation into the theft. They interviewed all the museum staff and security officers who were on duty that night, but neither the thieves, nor the gold, were ever found.

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  1. Catalano, Antonio, ‘Nugget theft raises security fear’, The Age, 1 September 1991, p 5
  2. Maslen, Geoff, ‘The glittering heist’, The Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum, 7 September 1991, p 38
  3. As above
  4. As above
  5. As above
  6. As above
  7. As above
  8. Catalano, Antonio, ‘Nugget theft raises security fear’, The Age, 1 September 1991, p 5
  9. As above
  10. As above
  11. Maslen, Geoff, ‘The glittering heist’, The Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum, 7 September 1991, p 38

This article has 9 comments

  1. I was the Curator of Minerals at the time and had worked very hard for some years to reach a deal with the State Bank. I was in Berlin when the heist took place but was never interviewed. Everything pointed to an inside job which must have required a fair bit of coordination. If the nugget wasn’t melted down it would be difficult for whoever got to own to ever show it publicly.

  2. Richard Pilkington

    7 kg of gold would be worth approximately AUD $686,784.66 at the current market price on the 3/11/2023 – I removed .25kg to account for melt loss.

    • It sounds like an inside job to me. The thieves must have known about the upcoming new security system, the layout of the building and the hours of security guards. They must have been strong, determined and savvy about the weight of the nugett and aware of its worth on the open, but dark gold market.

  3. I believe the display of this nugget to be at the Swanston Street entrance. Suggesting an inside job may include a joint operation with members of Vicpol. The police hq on the opposite corner would be an excellent hiding place. Maybe a re examination of the activity recorded at the time might shed light on the theft

  4. I worked in the Museum Education unit at the time. I recall seeing the smashed North Rotunda door (used for entry by schools) and the smashed case the next morning. I was keen to photograph the case actually, but was advised not to as it may be “too distressing” – whatever that meant. As you note the Museum then had its own security detail and was staffed overnight, in addition to having TV cameras. What the article doesn’t mention is that the Museum of Victoria had already hosted major touring exhibitions of really precious objects including “Gold of the Pharaohs” (March – June 1989) and “Civilization: Ancient Treasures from the British Museum” (June – Sept 1990) so it was regarded as a very secure location.

    • Thanks for your comment Nicholas. Interestingly, there is a photo of the smashed display case featured in the Sydney Morning Herald feature article: ‘A glittering heist’ (Spectrum, 7 September 1991, p 38). You can also see a photo of it in an article on page 5 of The Age that was published on 2 September 1991.
      If you are a registered Victorian Access member of the Library, you can read these articles in our database: Australian Newspapers Collection (1831-2000). Sarah

  5. Fascinating to read this story and also the comments afterwards. A mystery for sure. Has a book been written?

    • Hi Jennie, thanks for your interest. No, to the best of my knowledge a book has not been written, although I’m sure it would be a riveting read! Sarah

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